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The Walker administration approved plans on Friday, Sept. 15, for a major new public-private initiative to convert manure into energy to help address growing concerns of pollution  from animal waste.

The state Public Service Commission approved $15 million to subsidize a project by a private concern, BC Organics, to harness the energy-producing properties from cattle manure into marketable natural gas.

BC Organics is expected to spend $60.3 million, including state dollars, on an anaerobic digester planned for Hobart in Brown County that will connect there to an interstate gas pipeline. 

The manure would come from an estimated 20,000 cattle housed at nine dairy farms. 

At Friday's meeting, PSC Chairwoman Ellen Nowak said the project would remove nearly 190 million gallons of raw manure and produce natural gas to heat the equivalent of 7,600 homes.

The ability of farms to safely spread waste, especially from a growing livestock base in northeastern Wisconsin, is becoming "increasingly untenable," Nowak said. She cited the threat of pollution to groundwater and surface water.

The PSC, which regulates utilities, plays a major role in the state's energy policy. The agency has been interested in manure as a renewable energy source for several years. In 2016, it concluded, however, that efforts focusing on small- and  medium-sized dairy farms was not viable.

The 3-0 vote represents the biggest single effort by the administration of Republican Gov. Scott Walker to address manure pollution issues. All three members were appointed by Walker.   

A separate initiative — rules proposed by the Department of Natural Resources that would limit spreading on land where soil and geology make it more vulnerable to pollution — must go the Legislature. 

The PSC had allocated up to $20 million in subsidies for a manure-to-energy project. 

The $15 million it allocated on Friday would be paid for by the state's Focus on Energy program, which typically underwrites energy efficiency projects. The money comes from a surcharge on electric customers.

The state funds would be used as construction financing for BC Organics, which is calling the project "Green Pastures Bio Energy Center."

The registered agent for the company is Duane Toenges, chief executive of the Waukesha-based Dynamic Group, which has developed other biogas projects, including two others in Wisconsin, according to the company. 

Manure pollution has become an increasingly contentious issue in Wisconsin, especially waste of cattle from large-scale farms. Concentrated animal feeding operations have grown sharply since 2000 and the number of such farms now stand at more than 200 .

Many are located in northeastern Wisconsin where the region's fractured bedrock can create conditions where waste percolates through soil and pollutes groundwater.

Farming practices have been the most controversial in dairy farm-intensive Kewaunee County, which had been expected to be the leading candidate for such a project.

A competing project by U.S. Venture would have been built in Kewaunee County, adjacent to Brown County.

Nowak said during Friday's meeting that the winning project would use waste from the region, including Kewaunee County. 

A third candidate considered by commisioners was Agri-Waste Energy Operations Inc. in St. Croix County in western Wisconsin.

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